Aurora Chorealis: Celebrating the LA Master Chorale
By Thomas May
Among the unforgettable experiences this season the Los Angeles Master Chorale has given us are the inaugural “Hidden Handel” production, Julia Wolfe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Anthracite Fields, a salute to Russian choral music, and an entire concert celebrating the city of LA and its contemporary artistic voices. In the wake of Alexander’s Feast, Handel’s ode to the power of music, what finer way to cap the season than with a program devoted to the wealth of music for chorus alone? Artistic Director Grant Gershon has curated a menu of a cappella choral delights spanning from the late Renaissance to the present — with, characteristically for the LA Master Chorale, a healthy emphasis on music from our own time.
First up is a pair of liturgical motets from Italian composers for the Catholic Church, starting with the Baroque Antonio Lotti (1667-1740), a Venetian master closely associated with the legendary St. Mark’s Basilica in that city. There he produced a trove of sacred choral music, but he was also drawn to opera and wrote works for the houses in Venice as well as Dresden. Crucifixus is a motet for eight-part choir setting a portion of the Credo, which in turn is familiar as the lengthiest movement (in terms of text) from the Latin Mass. Lotti’s Crucifixus is taken from his Credo in F major; the score (discovered from his Dresden period — 1717-19 — but likely composed in Venice) includes a continuo part, though the piece, which uses suspended dissonances to poignant effect, is often performed a cappella.
Over in Rome, during the previous century, Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652) carried on the choral tradition of Palestrina, while also looking ahead to the Baroque in his instrumental music and in the sacred music he published in his lifetime. Allegri not only composed but was a priest and singer serving as an alto with the Sistine Chapel Choir. In fact the degree of his authorship of the Miserere (the piece for which Allegri is most remembered and which has been in regular usage since it was introduced) is now disputed by scholars — but that’s another story.
The story many music lovers have encountered involves the mystique surrounding this particular composition, which sets Psalm 51 (one of the “Penitential Psalms”), a text sung as part of the Tenebrae service during Holy Week (the Liturgy of the Hours associated with the prayers ending at dawn). As a kind of musical equivalent to Walter Benjamin’s concept of a painting’s unreproducible “aura,” this setting of the Miserere could be heard only during those services at the Sistine Chapel. Copying out and distributing the music was forbidden, upon pain of excommunication (a far more effective way of enforcing intellectual property rights than copyright seems capable of doing in the era of online streaming).
But when a certain 14-year-old prodigy named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart toured Italy and paid a visit to the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week of 1770, he went ahead and captured the music on paper from memory. The Miserere alternates between a choir that sings a plainer version of the ancient chant associated with the Psalm and a spatially distributed choir (performed tonight by an octet) that adds ornamental stylings (including a beatific high C lofted, originally, by the castrati or boy sopranos); both choirs join together at the end. Instead of being excommunicated, Mozart was rewarded by Pope Clement XIV with a knighthood in the Papal Order of the Golden Spur.
Choral music’s ability to amplify pre-existing poetry is illustrated by Envoi, the third and final piece from Songs of Smaller Creatures by Abbie Betinis (b. 1980). Born in Wisconsin and trained in the Suzuki method at an early age, she is now based in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and in 2011 was included by NPR Music and WQXR in New York on their list of “100 Composers Under 40.” Betinis describes Songs as “three short tone-poems for mixed a cappella chorus, each a character study on a small creature from the natural world.” In Envoi, the creature in question is the butterfly. With wonderful charm, Betinis sets a simple text by the Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne to a rocking meter, turning the words, as the composer puts it, “into a flocking of a mass of butterflies. The nonsense syllables propel the piece while providing a subtle flapping of tiny wings, as if the singers are suddenly there in the thick of the migration.”
If Envoi transforms the singers onomatopoetically, so to speak, into butterflies, the Hungarian Modernist master György Ligeti (1923-2006) fashions a startling, at times terrifying, cloud of voices that evokes a feeling of supernatural mystery in his setting of the Lux Aeterna — the Latin text for the concluding part of the Communion rite during the Roman Catholic Requiem. (This is the text heard at the end of Mozart’s Requiem, for example, in its posthumously completed version.)
In 1965 Ligeti had composed a Requiem up through the Dies irae; a fresh commission the following year brought an opportunity to complete it — though the Lux Aeterna is often performed as a self-standing piece. Both the Requiem and the Lux Aeterna appear (along with two other Ligeti compositions) on the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s epochal science-fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (used without the composer’s permission). As a team of investigators heads off on their “moonbus” to examine a recently discovered lunar monolith, strains of the Lux Aeterna for 16-part mixed choir are heard. In Ligeti’s superdense polyphonic treatment — a technique the composer labeled “micropolyphony” — the words themselves become buried within the thick choral textures. This is the opposite of Baroque (or Romantic) “word painting,” generating instead a mesmerizingly opaque soundscape of lines tightly woven in canonic imitation and using early Flemish music as a model for Ligeti’s complex polyphonic technique.
The opening distributes the same stepwise sequence of pitches among four soprano and four alto parts. Ligeti articulates these at varying temporal intervals to establish unpredictable patterns of entrance and overlapping. Getting it to work poses extreme challenges for the singers: they must maintain crystal-clear intonation within the resulting, almost claustrophobic, sonic fog, and at the same time they must adhere to Ligeti’s complex rhythmic subdivisions. “Sostenuto, molto calmo, as if from afar,” writes Ligeti at the head of his score. Eternity, in a sense, becomes a trick of time.
The music world has been numbed with shock over the past few months by several tragically sudden deaths. In February came news of the loss of Steven Stucky (1949-2016), who had only recently been diagnosed with brain cancer. Angelenos were fortunate to watch this widely performed composer of orchestral and chamber music develop as an artist, thanks to his long association with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (initially as a Composer-in-Residence and then as an advisor for new music). That connection resulted in his Second Concerto for Orchestra, which was premiered during the inaugural season of Walt Disney Concert Hall and which garnered Stucky the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2005. As recently as 2014 came the world premiere of his brilliant first opera, The Classical Style, commissioned for the Ojai Festival (and, yes, based on the musicological classic by Charles Rosen, from which pianist Jeremy Denk crafted a superbly witty libretto). Stucky was also active as a conductor, writer, and scholar (he was a leading expert on the music of Witold Lutos?awski), and he became a widely influential teacher of some of the brightest young composers at work today.
Three New Motets, first performed in 2006 in Kansas City, was commissioned by a consortium including Seattle Pro Musica, the Kansas City Chorale, the Grinnell Singers, and the Phoenix Bach Choir in honor of the 500th anniversary of Thomas Tallis. Stucky dedicates his score “in memoriam Thomas Tallis (born 1505 ca.).” The texts, set for double choir (four parts each), imply a kind of miniature Passion (Last Supper and the Crucifixion) and include the following: O Admirabile Commercium (a motet for the Feast of the Circumcision on New Year’s Day), O Sacrum Convivium (associated with the Magnificat for Corpus Christi and its praise of the Eucharist), and O Vos Omnes (another text often used during the Holy Week Tenebrae service). Stucky frames the rhythmic and harmonic agitation of the middle panel of this choral triptych (the brief O Sacrum Convivium) with two motets that are homophonically more serene.
Recently the LA Master Chorale announced its appointment of Eric Whitacre (b. 1970 in Nevada) as the ensemble’s first-ever Artist-in-Residence: a two-year post that begins in the coming season and that will expand the LA Master Chorale’s ongoing relationship with this enormously popular and influential composer of choral music. Tonight’s program offers a sample of the multitalented Whitacre’s contributions, beginning with his arrangement of the song Enjoy the Silence by the British synthpop band Depeche Mode.
The song, released in 1990 as a single as well as a track on their seventh studio album (titled The Violator as a tongue-in-cheek reference to Heavy Metal excess), marked a turning point for the band’s rising fortunes since their founding at the start of the 1980s. Enjoy the Silence, which included a tribute to Sibelius on the record’s B-side, has attracted many artists to cover it. The official music video alluded to the imagery of The Little Prince and another video was released showing Depeche Mode lip-syncing the song atop the observatory on the south tower of the former World Trade Center. According to the band’s biographer, Steve Malins, Enjoy the Silence was conceived as a slow ballad but morphed into a more typical electro-up-tempo song. Whitacre’s arrangement restores something of the slow ballad sensibility, translating the song’s poignant dissonances into pure choral poetry. This version of Enjoy the Silence was made for his own Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble, the Eric Whitacre Singers; they released a recording as part of the choir’s first EP on vinyl in 2014.
Anders Hillborg (born in Stockholm in 1954), is a composer who, like so many fellow Scandinavians, acquired his first musical experiences from choral singing. Since 1982 the prolific Hillborg has supported himself as a freelance composer (along with occasional teaching stints), amassing an output that spans widely across genres, in collaboration with many of today’s leading conductors and soloists. A longtime friend of Esa-Pekka Salonen, Hillborg dedicated his LA Phil-commissioned Eleven Gates (2006) to him; both Hillborg and Salonen presented brief new piano pieces during the LA Phil/LA Master Chorale’s special Part of Radical Light concert in homage to Steven Stucky in April, 2016.
Mouyayoum dates from 1983 — relatively early in Hillborg’s career — and represents the Nordic take in those years on Minimalism. The title is merely a formula: a phonetic reference point for Hillborg’s wordless music. During rehearsal of the piece, he asks the singers to “choose a comfortable pitch and sing the formula [mouyayoum] at a slow tempo such that each individual phoneme is consciously articulated (legato); once this starts to work, gradually increase the tempo; finally, sing so quickly that the individual phonemes cannot be articulated clearly and the formula is perceived as a single sound.” The composer also describes the formula as “an opening and closing of the timbre.” The musical material derives from transparent harmonies and two types of phrases extending over 16 quarter notes: one sustained and one broken into a flow of 16th notes.
Hillborg divides his mixed choir into 16 parts (four each of SATB), of which each should be sung by a minimum of two voices — adding that the high soprano parts actually require at least three singers “in view of the demanding passages at the end of the piece.” Mouyayoum “may be considered as a study in which the main purpose is to achieve the greatest possible precision with regard to timbre, pulse, and dynamics,” writes Hillborg. Yet, as with Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, the enveloping sonorities readily spur the imagination to accompany with all manner of imagery: could this be a sonic replication of the Aurora borealis?
Based in Los Angeles, the Haitian-American composer, conductor and singer Sydney Guillaume (b. 1982) is a familiar presence in the choral community. Au-Delà Du Chagrin (“Beyond the Sorrow”) is a touching a cappella work from 2009. Guillaume was commissioned to write this piece by choral conducting professor Kevin Fenton in memory of his wife Peggy Fenton, who had died of breast cancer. He sets a (mostly) French text by Gabriel T. Guillaume, written “with deepest sympathy for the husband and daughters of Peggy Fenton.” The imagery of hats in the poem derives from a program Peggy presented at her church shortly before her death, as explained by Kevin Fenton: “During the program, she weaved stories of her life and the many relationship roles one plays: as a daughter, sister, and then as wife, mother, and teacher. As she talked about each role she wore a different hat.” Guillaume sets the text for a five-part chorus (SATBB), incorporating a passage in which the singers blow for a few seconds “to create the sound of a quiet wind.” Followed by complete silence, this gesture becomes a powerful musical metaphor and prepares the way for the jubilant close.
Argentine composer and conductor Javier Zentner (b. 1951 in Buenos Aires) chose a poem from the collection En la masmédula by fellow Argentine poet Oliverio Girondo (1891-1967) for his a cappella setting of Mi lumía (1997). When Grant Gershon chose this piece for the program concluding his fifth season with the LA Master Chorale, he singled out the “mysterious and evocative” qualities of Zentner’s music and Girondo’s poem alike, adding that “Mi lumía is the choral version of pillow talk — half-whispered, edge-of-sleep murmurings to the one you love.”
From the choral intimacy of Zentner’s composition the program moves on to conclude with one of its calling cards: the traditional spiritual Elijah Rock in the eight-part choral arrangement by Moses Hogan: an emblem of the mingled pain and pulsating hope that this signature American musical genre so unforgettably expresses.
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.